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AT&T reaches out and touches Web sites

AT&T takes the wraps off of a new technology that will turn Web sites into a virtual phone booth.

AT&T took the wraps off of a new technology that will turn Web sites into a virtual phone booth.

As reported yesterday by CNET, the technology code-named Project iA (for instant Answers) is designed to add an extra dimension to customer service by combining the human contact of telephone conversations with the interactivity of Web sites.

Web sites that use the iA technology will let Net surfers click on an icon that makes a phone call to a customer service agent, and then allow both parties to both talk to each other and exchange data such as images over their phones and PCs.

The iA technology is a key step towards the fusion of AT&T's bread-and-butter long distance phone service and its fledging Internet efforts. But the benefits of the technology may be unavailable to many consumers since initially it will require two telephone lines: one for the Internet connection, the other for voice communications.

AT&T said iA eventually will support voice and data communications over a single phone line, although it did not specify when.

According to some analysts, the combination of voice and Internet communications makes sense as a way to spruce up traditional 800-number customer service with multimedia. AT&T's iA technology is just one example of how that combination might work, however.

Web sites could also offer voice communications using Internet telephones, software that allows users to hold phone conversations--albeit crackly, CB radio-style conversations--directly over the Net, said Christine Heckart, director of broadband consulting at TeleChoice. Although the quality of such conversations would be poor, it would allow users with a single phone line to access the Web and have a phone conversation at the same time.

"For many industries, customer service is becoming a defining differentiator," said Heckart. "AT&T is providing is a way, over time, for companies to differentiate their customer service."

The company will begin beta testing iA in the coming weeks and plans to offer it as a service to Web sites during the first half of 1997.

Stahls, a textile and graphics manufacturer that is beta testing AT&T's service, doesn't think iA will replace phone-line support because customers want to ask questions to live operators. But the agents often need to show as well as tell customers about their product, and iA lets them zap them an image of a catalog item via the Net, said Carlene Gray, director of marketing at Stahls.

"Our product line is very visual," said Gray. "Being on the Internet allows us to show customers exactly what our products look like. The new AT&T service allows them to still talk to customer service representative."

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